There are 12 engineering writing tips every engineer needs to know. Because writing is essential in almost every engineering position.
- Emailing clients, sub-contractors, vendors, and managers
- Writing memos, reports, manuals, specs, and proposals
- Documenting how someone can and can’t use your device/equipment
- Editing the writing of other engineers
- Customer support
- Pursuing funding for a business
Then from a personal growth lens, writing is a great way to understand complex subjects. If you’ve ever tried writing on a subject you know little about, you know what I’m talking about. As you start writing, you research and learn to fill in your content gaps.
Let’s now get started with the 12 writing tips for engineers. Both for general and technical writing.
#1 Read and read some more
Reading technical writing teaches you the following:
- How to structure sentences
- The type of content to write about
- The level of detail to use
Just as important, you learn how to jump into the meat of subjects without any fluff talk. Almost all technical writing takes you straight to the heart of subjects. Because no one reads technical writing for entertainment. You only read to learn something and then move on.
I recommend you read your boring dust-collecting textbooks from back in school. And even better, read manuals. Every device and equipment has a manual with technical writing inside. You can even download random manuals online. For example, check out Square D’s manuals on switchboards.
The more of this type of writing you read, the better your writing will naturally become. Plus, seeing how different people approach technical writing is very beneficial. You can pick and choose your favorite parts from different writing styles.
#2 Think of who your audience is
Ask yourself, who will read your writing? Once you know your audience, you can massage your content accordingly. Because your readers will dictate your writing style.
One day you may write to other engineers, and the next day, to non-technical managers. And if you’re writing to a non-technical audience, you’ll need to water down your technical details. Because your job is to best serve your audience.
#3 Practice and practice some more
Practice writing A LOT. Personally, I try to write as much as my schedule allows. And to be frank, I never was the greatest writer in school. My writing only improved through endless self-practice over the years.
I will say though, technical writing can be more difficult because it’s so dry and emotionless. It’s like cooking a meal without any added condiments. BUT, if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll only care about healthy calories. The same applies to technical writing. Your readers will only care about your technical content.
As added inspiration and as crazy as it sounds, over time, you’ll become fond of technical writing. Once you get good, it’ll become enjoyable.
#4 Keep it simple
The trick to best explaining complex subjects is to keep your writing as simple as possible. Don’t add unnecessary content while using big words. You can even find inspiration from the great Albert Einstein who famously said,
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
So can you convey the same idea in 2 paragraphs versus 4? If yes, then it’s a no-brainer to go with 2 paragraphs. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather read 2 paragraphs versus 4.
So always read through your writing many times. Try to cut out the fat to make your writing easier to understand.
#5 Use an active voice
Technical writing doesn’t typically focus on the past. So, use an active voice in your writing. This will make your writing more authoritative and engaging too. The following is an example:
Active voice: mount the charging station next to the building for better access.
Passive voice: better access will be had by mounting the charging station next to the building.
The active voice version reads clearer and is more authoritative. The passive voice just doesn’t sound right.
#6 Proofread your writing
The first version of a document is never the final. You NEED to always proofread your writing. And I’m not talking about one read-through. But several.
When I write, proofreading is always the most time-consuming part. Frankly, it can be a never-ending process if you’re a perfectionist. I suggest spacing out your read-throughs. Take a break, and the next day, go back and review your writing once again. A fresh mind helps you spot issues you initially missed.
In your read-throughs, do the following:
- Ensure your writing to your audience
- Remove unnecessary words and sentences
- Add missing technical details
- Simplify your content
- Clarify any confusions
#7 Take a technical writing course
We’ve all taken writing classes since being kids to learn how to write a certain way. But, there’s a big difference between being a good regular writer and a good technical writer.
Good technical writing requires a special skill set. And this is where specialized courses will force you to be an effective technical writer. A teacher will push and give you constructive feedback to speed up your learning.
You can signup for physical classes or online courses, whichever fits your schedule.
#8 Avoid broken English in text messaging
It’s scary how many text messages some people send these days, using broken English. In fact, some people use more broken English than they do good grammar in their day-to-day lives.
Given we’re creatures of habit, you can see the problem. Texting can lead to poor writing habits, which carry over to your formal writing. This is why I make a conscious effort to always use proper grammar and spelling. Of course, my texts are never as dry as my technical writing. I don’t want people to think they’re speaking with a robot…
What’s more, there’s a benefit to texting without using broken English. You can seamlessly transition from texting to formal writing. Because your mind doesn’t need to transition from janky English to good English.
#9 Discover your passion for writing
Passion goes a long way in any activity you do. The less passion you have for an activity, the poorer your output will be. This includes writing. If you don’t have a passion for writing, an avid reader will know.
Now, I’m not saying you need to love writing more than anything in the world. But, you can’t despise it either.
And I get it, writing can be difficult and even grueling. You’ll have dry spells where you can’t write anything no matter how hard you try. But this happens to everyone, including the best of the best.
Personally, I was never a huge fan of writing growing up. But over time, I began to really enjoy it. What’s more, the better writer I became, the more I enjoyed it. It’s a positive feedback loop.
#10 Be sociable and step outside your comfort zone
Become sociable. Speak with your colleagues, clients, and engineer friends. This will force you to verbally communicate technical ideas. In return, your writing will improve.
It’s like how reading improves your writing. Or, if you immerse yourself in a foreign land, you’ll quickly pick up the native language. Even more, you’ll pick up the special lingo.
The trick is though, to speak with people who have impeccable speaking skills. Speak with people who have a deep vocabulary and understanding of technical subjects.
#11 Online tools
There are countless helpful online writing tools to use. One great free tool is the Hemingway app. It’ll help make your writing more clear and simple.
Be selective with the recommendations it makes though. The app will try to oversimplify some sentences. This sometimes becomes overkill in technical writing.
Next, there’s Grammarly. I find the free version even works great to improve your writing. Finally, Google offers some awesome courses to improve your technical writing. The courses are easy to follow and they cover writing fundamentals very well.
#12 Know your subject well
The more familiar you are with a subject, the more easily you can simplify complex ideas for readers. Because you can’t write about something you know nothing about.
Copying material from others won’t cut it either. For one, not all published content is accurate. But you wouldn’t know if you can’t verify the accuracy of the information. Secondly, molding content to fit your audience is difficult if you don’t know a subject well.
Even more, technical writing helps you best learn complex subjects. Every time I write on a technical subject, I end up diving down countless rabbit holes. I self-research subjects to death, to understand them inside and out. In the end, I write better content and learn a ton of cool new things. A win-win!
Engineering writing tips conclusion
Becoming a good writer takes time. It won’t happen overnight, and it’s not an easy skill to pick up.
It took me many years and A LOT of writing to become good. But, it was one of the best investments I ever made in myself. So, don’t shy away from the challenge. The deeper your skills are, the better and more valuable engineer you’ll become.
From these 12 engineering writing tips, what’s your favorite? What engineering writing tips have worked best for you?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.